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What Does a Smaller World Mean for Human Rights?

In June 1989, the Internet was a whisper. The news of the massacre at Tiananmen Square came through phone calls, faxes, and reporter’s accounts. Looking back on those events, many opined that the pro-democracy demonstrations would have unfolded differently had they occurred just a few years later, in the already booming Internet age. That may well be true, but the explosion of technology in the last 20 years has made the challenge of promoting individual rights in China from the outside more complicated, not less.

Modern information technology means that governments can no longer keep major events a secret. Chinese citizens today would hear quickly about a large-scale protest, should one take place, unlike in 1989, when most didn’t know of the demonstrations. Organizers can now mobilize faster—China has nearly 700 million cell phone users. Everyone texts and blogging and Twittering are also popular. These two changes could significantly influence how a crisis unfolds.

But the Chinese state masterfully polices online and cellular communications. True, any determined Chinese high school kid student can find out about anything she wants online—Tibet and de Toqueville included. But what the vast majority of citizens experience, and want to experience, online, has nothing to do with political dissent. A sophisticated system of self-censorship and surveillance has, contrary to the predictions of many, allowed the Internet to flourish but not to fan democratic dreams.

China’s economic opening—assisted by the Internet—has brought many freedoms to its citizens—the freedom from hunger chief among them. At the same time, individual political freedoms are still sorely lacking—dissidents get transferred, thrown in jail, or worse—and progress toward greater democracy and pluralism is frozen. U.S. efforts to influence political rights and structure in China have never been easy or particularly effective, but 20 years of growing interdependency, both in economic and security terms, has made the quest even more complex.

China is a key player, if not the key player, in each of three crises that face the Obama administration—the worldwide economic crisis, global warming, and North Korea’s nuclear program. Technology has made these crises what they are—the Internet made the financial crisis global, carbon combustion fueled global warming, and the proliferation of nuclear technology emboldens Pyongyang.

China holds keys to solving them all. The degree of China’s slump, the size of its stimulus package, and the pace of its evolution to a domestic-led growth model are critical factors in getting the global economy back on its feet. That is why Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was just in Beijing. China is now the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world; together, the United States and China account for 40 percent of emissions. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was in Beijing last week for talks on this issue. Also, China controls some 70 to 90 percent of North Korea’s fuel supply; if anyone can bring Pyongyang to heel, it is Beijing. Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg traveled to Beijing today to discuss North Korea’s nuclear program with Chinese officials.

Some argue that this interdependency means the United States has less leverage. The fact is America never had much leverage to change the internal political dynamics of a large, proud, complicated country—we haven’t in the past and we don’t now. Yet interdependency works both ways. China’s engagement is critical to problems we want to solve, but American leadership keeps the world safe for Chinese growth. Interdependency also means that our agenda with China is always full of critical issues; one cannot always trump others.

So where does all this leave us on human rights, democracy, and rule of law in the age of interdependency? First it means that the power of the American example is more important than ever. For decades, the United States has been the symbol of modernity to which the Chinese aspired. The torture debate in the United States is not just about our own security and morality, but about the example we set for aspiring great powers. We should be able look Chinese leaders in the eye and ask them about torture in their prisons without anticipating a chorus of snickers. Moreover, the more righteous our own record on human rights around the globe, and the more leadership we show on these issues, the worse China looks in comparison as it trades small arms in Sudan or bucks up a repressive regime in Burma (Myanmar). Why are we the only country other than Somalia that hasn’t ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child?

Second, we should make common cause with other countries that care. Consistent scrutiny and messages coming from a slew of capitols is more effective than criticism from Washington alone. International forums could help isolate China—something Beijing wants to avoid. The United States recently joined the U.N. Human Rights Council, a multilateral venue that needs reform but will routinely scrutinize Beijing’s record.

Third, we should align ourselves with forces within China that are pushing for change. The Chinese government itself, for example, has been divided about whether to reform the so-called “reeducation through labor” system, and about how much press freedom to allow. Labor rights are slowly improving, sometimes in the face of opposition from U.S. multinationals. Environmental activism is often tolerated.

What is required is an eye for strategic openings to advance democracy and human rights, and a hefty dose of patience. For the truth is that, in this area, for all its rationales, Beijing is on the wrong side of history. If China is to emerge as the widely respected world power it aspires to be, it will eventually come to that same conclusion.

Read more about China from CAP:

A Global Imperative, by Nina Hachigian, Michael Schiffer, and Winny Chen

Strategic Persistence, by Bill Schulz